COVID-19 is as much a wakeup call for pandemic preparedness as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. were for terrorist threats, showing the Canadian government the weaknesses it must confront to guard against future deadly outbreaks, intelligence experts said Monday.
The breakdown of Canada’s pandemic early warning system, which had its operations curtailed by the government less than a year before the outbreak hit, is an example of the mistakes that need addressing, a meeting of the intelligence community heard.
“Whenever anybody looks at the history of the intelligence community in Canada, 9/11 stands out as a turning point in terms of attention to security intelligence, in terms of funding for agencies, in terms of reorganization of government,” said Greg Fyffe, a former intelligence adviser to the federal government.
“I think it’s a very pertinent question to ask if this could be the same.”
Mr. Fyffe, a former director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat, was speaking at a meeting held by two organizations analyzing Canada’s pandemic response: the Centre for International Policy Studies and the Canadian Association of Security Intelligence Studies.
Julianne Piper, a researcher studying the breakdown of the pandemic early warning system, known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, said the government’s handling of the highly specialized unit is an important area of concern when looking at what went wrong in the early days of the outbreak.
“Why does this matter? Epidemic intelligence gathering is a critical and early step in disease detection, prevention and response. It’s essential to health security,” said Ms. Piper, a researcher at Simon Fraser University who focuses on global health security.
Created in the 1990s, GPHIN was highly respected around the world for its ability to spot outbreaks early and allow the government to get a head start on preparations. It played a key role in allowing Canada and other governments to respond quickly to deadly threats such as SARS, H1N1 and Ebola.
But a Globe and Mail investigation last year detailed how GPHIN had much of its operations silenced starting in 2018, as managers within the Public Health Agency of Canada looked to reallocate its resources to other areas that did not involve pandemic preparedness. With no threat of an outbreak on the horizon, PHAC believed its staff and technology could be better put to use tracking domestic health problems such as the impacts of vaping and the spread of syphilis, rather than scanning the world for outbreaks.
Ms. Piper told the meeting that given its capabilities, mobilizing GPHIN earlier could have had a significant impact on how quickly Canada acted to secure itself against COVID-19.
“It’s about more than early warning signals. While GPHIN could have mobilized signals a few weeks or a few days earlier in December, 2019, it’s also about how that information is shared, how effectively it is shared and how efficiently it is acted on,” Ms. Piper said.
Scientists working inside PHAC have told The Globe the pandemic early warning system was designed to inject urgency into the federal government’s decision making, particularly as the outbreak began to spread and the threat worsened. The purpose was to give the government advance intelligence to act pre-emptively on key decisions, such as when to bolster emergency stockpiles of protective equipment, or when to shore up long-term care facilities to protect the residents, as well as when to implement measures such as mask wearing or physical distancing.
“Given this robust public health capacity, the question is: Why wasn’t this mobilized in the way that it could have been in the days and weeks leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic?” Ms. Piper said.
“Quite the opposite, it became apparent in media reports that the department within PHAC that was responsible for overseeing GPHIN had actually curbed its capacities and reduced is impacts in the years leading up to where we are now.”
The Health Minister has ordered an independent federal review into PHAC’s handling of the early warning system, and the Auditor-General is also probing the matter. Both reports are due this spring. Ms. Piper said the handling of GPHIN is one of the big questions hanging over Canada’s pandemic response.
The Globe obtained 10 years of internal PHAC data that showed how, after issuing more than 1,500 outbreak alerts over the past decade, GPHIN’s international alert functions were shut down in May 2019. The alert system was restarted a few weeks after The Globe investigation was published.
As Canada examines how to restore GPHIN’s capacity, Ms. Piper said it’s not necessary for Ottawa to invent an entirely new model if the existing one worked before it was curtailed. But investing in those operations is important.
“The government of Canada had public health capacity to mobilize epidemiological intelligence already,” Ms. Piper said. “I do think there is a need to not continuously create new initiatives, but instead look at how we can better connect the capacities that we have among different departments.”
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